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Test Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible TDI

The Volkswagen Beetle ain’t what it used to be.

21st century versions have been more of a fashion accessory than a counter-culture statement, and despite a design that intentionally hearkens back to the original, the latest Beetle launched last year is even less of a cartoon character than those before it.

But there is one Bug available that is unlike any other car on the road.

The 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible TDI is the only diesel-powered drop top ever sold in the United States. Better yet, it’s available with a stick shift, so car enthusiasts and hipsters may finally have something to commune over.

It’s the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel you find in just about every other VW model these days, pumping out 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of front-tire spinning torque. More important to its mission, the motor/transmission combo delivers 41 mpg on the highway according to the EPA, which is kind of a joke.

Not in a bad way. I hit that mark without even trying and kept on going, seeing as high as 44 mpg on a 70 mph interstate run. Diesels are often overachievers in the MPG department, and this one appears to be no exception.  A six-speed automatic is an option and loses 4 mpg, on paper at least.

On pavement, the BC handles with typical VW confidence, but its limits are well within reach and it won’t be giving any GTIs the sweats at the local autocross. It’s not a fast car by objective measures, but that torque offers nice response when you punch it, even if the party ends a little early. The stopwatch mounted to the dashboard is better suited for seeing how long you can go between fill-ups. (14.5 gallon tank x 41 mpg/65 mph > 9 hours max.)

Easy cruising is more the point of the Beetle Convertible, anyway. It has a fully independent suspension that VW says is sport-tuned, but in reality is as cushy as the cashmere sweater you might wear while driving it on a chilly late spring day.

Given how much of the donor car that’s missing, the convertible’s chassis is surprisingly rigid. I made a “wrong” turn onto a gravel road that would give a Subaru pause, and the only shakes and rattles were coming from me jamming to the 400-watt Fender audio system that comes with a navigation package that tacks $1,300 on top of TDI’s $28,690 starting price.

With the top open, the breeze is bearable at highway speeds, but a large wind blocker that installs over the rear seats knocks it down to near zero when you put the windows up, too. No one can sit back there in this configuration, but even though the seats are large by convertible standards, they’re probably better left folded down to expand the trunk, which is not large at all.

Chalk part of that up to the fact that the roof stows much lower than the ones on past Beetles, to the point that you can actually see what’s behind you when it’s down. Up? Stay in the right lane and you won’t have to worry about the enormous blind spot.

Other than all that, the Beetle Convertible is pretty much identical to the coupe. Same body color dash inserts, thin rim steering wheel…the works. My one ergonomic complaint is that the center armrest obstructs both a cupholder and the handbrake lever, creating a simultaneous hindrance to hydration and hoonage.

The retro subcompact drop-top segment is pretty crowded these days, with the tiny Fiat 500c and MINI Cooper Convertible obvious competitors for the Beetle, which is the most practical package of the trio. Not-quite bargain shoppers can pick up a five-cylinder gasoline version for $25,790, or a Turbo model with that GTI engine for $28,590, but then you’re edging back into common car territory.

If you’re going for a Beetle, you’ve got to commit.

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2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible TDI

Base Price: $28,690

Type: 2-door, 4-passenger convertible

Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbodiesel

Power: 140 hp, 236 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG 28 city/41 highway